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    Kurdish doctors report suspected Turkish gas attack in Syria

    A picture taken on February 16, 2018, shows a Syrian man receiving treatment at a hospital in the town of Afrin. Six men were treated for breathing difficulties in the main hospital in Afrin after shelling by a Turkish-led offensive on their village, the general director of the Afrin hospital said. / AFP PHOTO / Ahmad Shafie BILALAHMAD SHAFIE BILAL/AFP/Getty Images
    Ahmad Shafie BilalAFP/Getty Images
    Six men were treated for breathing difficulties in the main hospital in Afrin, Syria, after shelling by a Turkish-led offensive on their village, the general director of the Afrin hospital said. The doctor said the six were poisoned by toxic substances contained in the shells.

    BEIRUT — Six civilians suffered breathing difficulties and other symptoms indicative of poison gas inhalation after an attack launched by Turkey on the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin, local doctors and Syria’s state-run news agency reported Saturday.

    Jiwan Mohammed, a doctor at Afrin’s main hospital, said the facility was treating six people who had been poisoned who arrived Friday night from the village of Arandi after it was attacked by Turkish troops.

    Another doctor, Nouri Qenber, said the victims suffered shortness of breath, vomiting, and skin rashes. One of the victims had dilated pupils, he said, quoting one of the rescuers.

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    State-run news agency SANA and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group also quoted local doctors in their reports.

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    The claims could not be independently verified, and videos released from the hospital showed people being fitted with oxygen masks who did not otherwise show symptoms of poison gas inhalation such as twitching, foaming at the mouth, or vomiting.

    State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States is aware of the reports ‘‘but we cannot confirm them. We continue to call for restraint and protection of civilians in Afrin.’’

    SANA on Saturday said Turkey fired several shells containing ‘‘toxic substances’’ on a village in Afrin on Friday night, causing six civilians to suffer suffocation symptoms.

    The Turkish military repeated in a weekly statement published Saturday that it does not use internationally ‘‘banned ammunition’’ in its Afrin operation and said, ‘‘the Turkish Armed Forces does not keep such ammunition in its inventory.’’

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    The army also said it is careful to not harm civilians and only targets ‘‘terrorists’’ and their positions in the Afrin region.

    The Turkish military launched an aerial and ground offensive on Afrin, in northwestern Syria, on Jan. 20.

    It says the aim of the operation is to push out the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, from the enclave. Turkey considers the group to be a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdish insurgents it fights inside Turkey.

    In a separate statement Saturday, the Turkish army said one soldier was killed in the Afrin operation Saturday, bringing the overall military death toll to 32 since the start of the campaign. Another soldier was killed in Turkey’s southeastern province of Hakkari during clashes with Kurdish militants, it added.

    Turkey’s president also said some 60 Turkish-allied Syrian opposition fighters were killed since the beginning of the operation.

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    Nearly a month into the offensive in Afrin, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are hiding from bombs and airstrikes in caves and basements, trapped in the enclave while Turkey and its allies are bogged down in fierce ground battles

    A slow-moving ground offensive, the assault on Afrin threatens to become a protracted standoff, deepening an already dire humanitarian situation. It could also prove costly for Turkey, diplomatically and militarily.

    So far, nearly 80 civilians in Afrin have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Seven civilians were killed in rocket attacks launched from Afrin on Turkish border towns.

    Turkey launched its offensive with more than 70 aircraft. Airstrikes were followed by a ground assault in which an estimated 10,000 allied Syrian rebel fighters took part, backed by Turkish artillery and other troops.

    Fighting on six fronts, the Turkey-backed troops have met stiff resistance from the YPG.

    The Kurdish fighters form the backbone of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighting Islamic State militants in eastern Syria, but are viewed by Turkey as an extension of its own insurgents, the Kurdistan Workers Party.

    Although Afrin is encircled from all sides by Turkey, the guerrilla fighters — with years to prepare for the defense of their 1,500-square-mile district — have proven a challenge.